is the author of The Rite, which has just been released as a film
starring Anthony Hopkins. The film uses the factual research by Matt
into the topic of demonic possession and shows how a catholic priest
trains and becomes an exorcist.
What inspired you to research and write this book?
I was living in Rome and heard about the university course in exorcism. When I went I was surprised at the lectures, as they were clear and fact-based. The approach was academic and scientific.
Did you regard this as a potential book?
I was going to write an article, but I attended the lectures and became fascinated. I wanted to expand on the subject and write more about the truth behind this subject. I wasn’t happy with the way exorcism is usually addressed, as it tends to be sensational and doesn’t get to the bottom of it.
What did you find out?
I met Father Gary Thomas who was sent to Rome to study exorcism and become an exorcist. I was surprised that he confessed he didn’t know much about the subject and had doubts about its validity, and was learning about it in much the same way I was. So I thought it was a good idea to follow him and his training. For a year I researched the book, this included interviewing victims of exorcism and attending exorcisms as well as obtaining the opinions of experts.
Who experiences demonic possession?
Victims can be anyone, although actual demonic possession is very rare. It is complicated and of course does involve mental illness that priests are trained to identify, although certain Christian organisations especially in the USA are not as rigorous. Exorcism should not involve belittling, hounding or shouting at people. This is close to criminal abuse in some cases. In contrast, the proper approach is calm and academic. Exorcism is a calm ritual often quietly conducted in Latin.
Does is work?
Anthropologists and psychologists would argue that it has a psychotherapeutic effect. It has a placebo effect, victims feel they are listened to and not ostracised for having these strange experiences and an exorcism can produce a clean break.
The priest should be sceptical and exorcism is different from just giving spiritual help. Some forms of exorcism are just a matter of giving a prayer but in instances where the possession is more powerful the full exorcism rite is given. I know of cases where insects have been seen and objects moving on their own, and the exorcism stopped them.
Exorcism does work and it reveals that that there is more to us as human beings, there is more than just mere matter, there is a healing, spiritual dimension to us. Even scientists have considered that prayer can help our health and that we are not just simply a biological thing.
How did the book become a film project?
Michael Petroni wrote the screenplay as I was writing the book. The book was published first. I passed on notes, information and chapters of the book to Michael. I did get input into the film although not the final say. I was a technical consultant and went on set and gave information and help on the subject to the actors and director. I took two of the actors to see an exorcism. I’d give them help in letting them know what people might say and feel during an exorcism.
The book is non-fiction and I was trying to portray the reality of the situation. I was able to distance myself between the book and the film; I know many authors have complained about how their work has been badly used by movie makers. I found it amazing to watch Anthony Hopkins take on his character. I’m happy with the film, it is very accurate. It attempts to be serious and truthful.
Did other films influence you?
The Exorcist of course stands out because it was original; there were no films like it before. Paranormal Activity touches on exorcism and there have been other films. They tend to be sensational; our film tries a different aspect. We are looking at the deeper issue of evil and overcoming it. In our portrayal of the devil, we are going for the less obvious, the hidden and the subtle.
It is not just a clear case of pure spirits and evil versus total scepticism, it is a complicated issue. A person opens up to possession when they are drawn to evil, and it becomes a battle to save them. Though this happens in say 1 out of a 1,000 people.
What are the most extraordinary cases do you know about?
In one case, Father Thomas saw the eyes of a victim become black and lifeless and it shocked him. He had previously been an embalmer and knew they looked exactly like the eyes of a dead body. The eyes just stared at him with sheer hatred.
In another instance, an exorcist prayed over a young woman who was possessed. He was talking to her mother, and she sat 10 feet away with her back to them. Like many priests do, he decided to play a little trick to see what the reaction would be. His trick was to say a prayer in French in his mind. The second he did this the young woman span round and told him in a gruff dog-like voice that praying in that language was useless as the devil knew all languages.
Many of these stories come from non-believers. One priest had a new cell phone that had all its messages erased. That night he had a telephone call asking for a blessing. He was about to give the blessing when the person’s voice changed and it asked, “did you like the joke I made on you with your cell phone? I can return your messages.”
Of course, possession can be faked and it’s not all clear cut. Exorcism asks questions about our existence, it challenges you and takes you deeper.
The Rite arrives on Triple Play Blu-ray™, DVD on 20th June and digital download on 17th June 2011.
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